The Water's Edge

Theresa Rebeck
Arcola Theatre
(2009)

Deep in the Massachusetts woodland there stands a wooden house. Clad in timber, its faded paintwork suggests years of neglect. Fourteen years neglect to be precise. As we gradually discover, a horrible event occurred all those years ago, down by the lake, which continues to impact on the lives of those involved. Some have remained, aware of the awful loss they experience on a daily basis. Others have escaped, or were forced to leave, unable or unwilling to share in the enormity of the tragedy.

The scene is set for Theresa Rebeck's tightly-written emotional drama. As the sunlight filters through the treetop canopy, two Americans arrive. One, a late middle-aged man whose suave charm and good looks belie his advancing years, the other, a sexy, sassy woman who is, as yet, blissfully unaware of the turmoil which her new affair represents.

The house appears deserted. Richard, the older man, describes his childhood memories to Lucy, his young partner. This was Richard's home, this was where his father and he fished and swam and boated and gazed up at the stars, lounging in an ancient cast-iron bath that Pop had dragged outdoors and plumbed with hot water right outside the porch. Some childhood!

The house is not deserted though. They are confronted by an irate young girl and her overly-sensitive brother. Erica and Nate live in the house with their mother Helen. As it turns out, Helen was married to Richard and these are his estranged children. Poor Lucy, the new girlfriend, knows nothing of this. The surprises come thick and fast, not least the surprise that Richard is still married to Helen.

Richard, the successful multi-propertied tycoon has returned "home" with one idea: to establish his ownership of the family abode. For Lucy, there remains one more secret to discover, a secret more profoundly disturbing than anything an unexpectedly married lover could throw her way. It is this secret which drives the action of the play and leads inexorably to its tragic conclusion.

Based loosely on a narrative in Aeschylus' Greek tragedy The Oresteia, The Water's Edge adapts the tale of a woman who patiently waits for her husband's return to avenge the death of their daughter. Richard might represent an Agamemnon returning triumphant from Troy, but the only god he has offended is Mammon. Helen might be his wifely Clytemnestra, but this backwater matriarch seems more vengeful than avenging, apportioning unremitting blame on her husband for an accident that had occurred so many years before. Just when the family find each other again, they lose each other in recrimination and pain.

Robert Cavanah plays the smooth-tongued, pony-tailed lounge-lizard Richard, whose business success, as his real wife recognizes, cannot mask his utter childishness when other people's feelings are concerned. Cavanah's easygoing acting style is filmic in its realism. He is well matched by the Lucy of Kate Sissons. Of course there is lust between this sexual pair. Sissons portrays Lucy's gradual self-realisation, tinged with a hint of self-loathing, with incomparable style.

No wonder Lucy's first meeting with Helen, played by Madeleine Porter, is such a disaster. Porter moves across the stage with all the stealth of a praying mantis waiting to consume her male mate in a moment of post-coital passion. When confronted with the young beauty who arrives at her home with all the subtlety of a multi-Buick freeway crash, Helen can do nothing but manipulate and cajole this young temptress into obligingly absenting herself from the family gathering. The scene is set for some horrific measures.

Fiona Morrell's production is well-paced and sympathetically produced. Rebeck's script is moving, funny and insightful. Cavanah and Sissons are most convincing in their roles, with Porter providing the requisite malevolence of a wronged woman. Some unconvincing histrionics from the younger performers, as well as a portrayal which verged on the abnormally deranged, detracted from the emotional intensity of the piece. Nonetheless, an entertaining and thought-provoking evening which demonstrates how brave the Arcola Theatre continues to be in finding and commissioning new work.

"The Water's Edge" is the second in the Arcola series "Re-imagining the Classics" inspired by Greek theatre, following "In Blood: The Bacchae" in January 2009

Kevin Quarmby